Paul Heise’s Interpretation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
No composer has ever been more of a philosopher than Richard Wagner, and in none of his works is Wagner more philosophical than in the The Ring of the Nibelung. In this work – surely the greatest drama composed in modern times – Wagner attempts to convey a picture of the human condition that will identify the origins of good and evil, the place of man in the cosmos, and the secret source of human freedom. When he wrote the poem Wagner was under the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach, the philosopher whose materialist reworking of Hegel’s social and political philosophy inspired the early thoughts of Karl Marx. And many commentators (not least George Bernard Shaw) have seen strong parallels between the vision of the Ring and the Marxist critique of capitalism. Heise shows that the influence of Feuerbach is indeed all-pervasive in Wagner’s music drama. But he also shows that the Ring is concerned with far deeper and more lasting questions than those raised by the discussion of property and revolution. The drama touches on aspects of the human psyche that are hardly acknowledged in the writings of 19th-century socialists. Briefly put, The Ring, on Heise’s interpretation, is an exploration of man’s religious sense, of the human need for the transcendental, and of the hope for redemption that endures even in our time of cynicism and materialist frivolity, and which can be satisfied, now, only through the truthful enchantment conveyed to us by art.
In developing that theme Heise has made, it seems to me, one of the most important contributions to Wagnerian scholarship that we have seen. As yet his work takes the form of a scene-by-scene analysis of the whole drama, in which the symbolism of the motives and the allegorical meaning of the action is minutely dissected. In making it available in this form, Heise has opened his ideas to public discussion, and made it possible for fellow Wagnerians to question them, to amplify them and to contribute to the kind of debate that is surely needed, if this great work is to take its proper place at the centre of modern philosophy and at the centre, too, of modern life.
The text of The Ring is derived, with imaginative flair and brilliant strokes of synthesis, from old German myths that were once the theological heritage of the German people. The seamless plot of the tetralogy can be read as a retelling of the myths of a dead religion. And yet this is also the meaning of the drama, on Heise’s reading: The Ring is about the death of religion – not the old Germanic religion only, which, in the Icelandic sagas, foresaw its own demise, but all religion. The religious need is the original need – the Urnoth – of humanity itself, which arises with our conscious separation from the cosmic order. Consciousness is the human lot, and the root of freedom; but it is also the cause of our fall – and Wagner’s telling of the ‘Fall’ is surely a poetic achievement to match those that we know from the Book of Genesis, and from Paradise Lost.
On Wagner’s understanding, consciousness is the origin, not only of the distinction between good and evil, but of the ‘hoard’ of scientific knowledge, which alienates us from our roots in species life. We long to regain the innocent oneness with the world that is the lot of animals and which was the lot of our pre-conscious ancestors. And we project that longing into the heavens, imagining there a blessed resting place where the wound of consciousness will be healed and we will regain the serenity that we lost in our first attempts at self-understanding.
That is the theme of Wagner’s drama as Heise interprets it. And in his subtle exposition he shows, one by one, how each scene of the work spells out some necessary feature of the allegory. Wagner’s work is a meditation on our condition, as spiritually needful beings, whose sparse allocation of happiness has created a lasting need for the transcendental. We seek for the transcendental in love, in power, in the accumulation of knowledge. But always it eludes us. What then is the redemption? Alberich renounces love, for the sake of the Ring, which is (on Heise’s interpretation) the spell-making and spell-deciphering power of science. And Alberich’s sin is both a sin against religion and the sin required by religion. For without science, in its elemental aspect, the illusory kingdom of the gods cannot be built or maintained. The intricate thought here, which is so difficult to grasp in plain prose, is wonderfully presented by the music and the drama of Das Rheingold, and lucidly explained by Heise in his commentary.
If we cannot redeem ourselves by renouncing love, then whence does redemption come? Two ideas animate the subsequent dramas. The first is that we are redeemed not by renouncing love, but by renouncing life for the sake of love. The second is that we are redeemed through art, and through the artist-hero (Siegfried) who takes on the task that religion failed to accomplish. The artist-hero presents a new kind of redemption, which is the redemption of ‘wonder’. Instead of looking for our vindication in the transcendental world, art shows that we are vindicated here and now, by our own capacity to recognise the beauty of the world, and to weave love and allusion into the warp of the sensory order. Which of these two forms of wisdom does Wagner recommend? Heise suggests that the two philosophies coincide: redemption through loving renunciation, and redemption through art involve the same sacrificial stance. Consciousness needed the gods, as a mirror in which to smile. Science smashed the mirror. And art replaced the mirror with a refracting window on the world, in which all the colours of our joy and suffering are harmonised. In the place of the certainties of religion and the doubts of science, art gives us wonder. Through wonder we accept the world, and this wonder is exemplified by the Ring itself. Wagner’s music shines a light of allusion and suggestion that reaches to the ends of the universe, and by showing what art can achieve, Wagner also justifies his view that art is the way in which we can live with the unhealing wound of consciousness.
Heise’s book is not an easy book. But it is a deep book. All Wagnerians know that The Ring is full of enigmas. But the enigmas are resolved by Heise in a most pleasing, intense and persuasive way. The Wanderer, Wotan’s missing eye, the Norns and their rope, the head of Mime, the many drinks brewed and refused or stored and consumed, the Ring, the Tarnhelm, the sword Nothung, the spear, the wood-bird – so many obscure seeming symbols, which become bright and transparent in Heise’s reading. I don’t agree with all that he says. But he awakens interest, argument, dissent and wonder at every point, linking the text minutely to the musical realisation, and bringing this great work to life in a way that I hope you will appreciate as much as I have.